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Prostration: Paying Homage to the Buddha

Prostrating to the Buddha is an important Buddhist practice, but what is its actual purpose? And, does the act of prostration really bring about protection and blessings?

The purpose of prostrating to the Buddha is not to receive a spiritual response, but to pay homage to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, while contemplating their merits and virtues. It thus serves as a reminder for us to emulate buddhas and bodhisattavas’ vows and efforts to help sentient beings leave suffering behind and attain genuine happiness.

Prostrating to the Buddha can harmonize our body and mind, helping us generate a sense of remorse, humility, repentance, and gratitude. This helps eliminate one’s karmic obstructions while increasing conscientiousness and diligence.

Does your mind easily become agitated and restless? Do you feel drowsy or easily distracted? You can prostrate to the Buddha as a way to put your disturbed mind at ease. Simply give it a try and you will experience the power of its benefits.

Prostrating to the Buddha harmonizes the body and mind, thereby facilitating our practice.

In addition to paying reverence towards and meditating on the Buddha and Bodhisattvas' merits, prostrating to the Buddha functions to tame our self pride, thereby giving rise to remorse, repentance, and gratitude. With consistent self-reflection and examination, our merits grow, and our heart becomes gentler. This keeps our body and mind at ease, thus enhancing our practice.

India's Bodh Gaya is the sacred site where Sakyamuni Buddha attained ultimate enlightenment. Every day there, one can see Buddhist monks of various traditions, together with lay Buddhist devotees from different parts of the world, coming to show their utmost reverence. Through the act of prostration, one contemplates how the Buddha attained enlightenment, preached the Dharma, and delivered sentient beings. Upon entering a Buddhist temple, devotees usually make three bows or prostrations toward the Buddha. Through the act of lowering the head, bowing, and kneeling down, one expresses veneration and faith toward all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, as well as the willingness to take refuge in them.

Showing reverence through body, speech and mind, recollecting the Buddha's virtues

The practice of venerating the Buddha goes back to Sakyamuni Buddha's time. At that time, the disciples implored the Buddha to preach the Dharma, as described in Buddhist sutras: "…in the assembly, having risen from the seat, uncovered his right shoulder, prostrated at the feet of the Buddha, circumambulated clockwise around the Buddha three times, kneeled down, joined the palms, and said thus to the Buddha…." The Buddha's disciples venerated the Buddha by performing the act of prostration, touching the Buddha's feet with both hands, and out of utmost respect, placing the forehead on the Buddha's feet. This signifies unifying the body, speech, and mind as one pays homage to the Buddha. After the Buddha's parinirvana, paying homage to stupas of the Buddha's relics and going on pilgrimage to the sacred sites gradually became a popular practice, as a way for the Buddha's disciples to remember him,

Around the second and third century, it became a popular practice for Mahayana practitioners of mindfulness of the Buddha to engage in the practices of prostrating to the Buddha, reciting the Buddha's name, and recollecting the Buddha's virtues, using a purified body, speech and mind. Doing prostrations demonstrates respect through the act of joining palms, lowering one's head to touch Buddha's feet, and kneeling with one's head to touch the ground. Recitation functions to convey reverence through one's speech by reciting phrases such as "Namo Sakyamuni Buddha" or "Namo Amitabha". Recollecting the Buddha's virtues constitutes the mindful and sincere remembrance of the Buddha, as well as a method of keeping the Buddha's virtues clearly in one's mind. For many Mahayana practitioners of later generations, the practice of recitation, prostration and recollecting the Buddha's merits has helped them deepen and strengthen their confidence and faith in Buddhadharma.

Tripitaka Master Yijing of the Tang dynasty studied the steps of bowing and prostration from the Indian tradition, and pointed out how the act of prostrating involves nine steps: namely, verbal greeting; bowing the head to show respect; raising the hands high above the head; joining palms together at chest level, with fingers pointing upward; bending knees; kneeling on the earth; lowering the body and touching the earth with hands and knees; touching the earth with the forehead, forearms and knees; and, lastly, making a full prostration with one's body pressed flat to the earth. Prostration starts with bowing down one's head to show respect, is followed by joining palms together, and finally ends with touching the ground with one's forehead, arms, and legs. Each step signifies a meaningful act of veneration, from which the Buddhist etiquette of venerating the Buddha was derived.

In ancient times, Buddhists monks from Tianzhu, or Sindhu (modern day India) and the Western Regions prostrated with the entire body surrendered onto the ground, also known as the "great prostration" or "full prostration". With the spread of Buddhism eastward, in order to adapt to the Chinese style of group practice-- which usually took place in an indoor ceremonial hall--the act of prostration was gradually adjusted to touching the ground with five body parts (arms, two legs, and forehead), while keeping the tradition of touching the ground with the forehead as a show of utmost respect. Therefore, Buddhists who have taken the Three Refuges are now required to learn the etiquette of worshipping and prostrating to the Buddha.

Touching the Earth to tame one's ego

In the Sutra on Questions of Vimalajñāna Bodhisattva regarding the Way to Venerate the Buddha, when the Bodhisattva asked the Buddha how to prostrate with the five body parts touching the earth, the Buddha replied that the first and foremost requirement when performing the etiquette is to make relevant good wishes. As we prostrate with our body parts touching the earth one by one, we should correspondingly pray in our mind that all sentient beings be free from hindering obstructions and attain calm abiding. As the forehead touches the ground, we should pray that sentient beings be free from pride and arrogance. From this, we know that prostrating to the Buddha through the sincere act of lowering our head, bending our body, and touching the ground also signifies a process to transform our mind. When we are willing to lower our head and body, to kneel on our knees, and lower our body close to the ground, we are actually beginning to cultivate a mind that is purer and more tender.

Practicing concentration in motion, realizing and experiencing no-self

Prostration is also an ideal way to regulate the body, thereby facilitating our practice of sitting meditation, reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, and daily chanting. While leading Chan retreats, Master Sheng Yen would advise participants to do repentance prostration. When sitting in meditation, if one finds oneself struggling with the method, entertaining wandering thoughts, or feeling physical discomforts, one can try rising from the cushion and prostrating to the Buddha. Prostration prompts us to honestly face unwholesome aspects of ourselves, as well as to sincerely repent past faults that might have caused harm to others. As we bow and prostrate, our lingering afflictions, arrogance, and self-attachment start to fall away. As the Master said, "With the sense of remorse emerging, our mind becomes more stable and less agitated, so we are better able to go about our practice." Next, simply "give your body to the cushion, and lend your mind to the method", and you will find your practice becoming more effective.

Venerable Guo Xing, former abbot of DDM's Chan Meditation Center in New York, also commends the way prostration helps train our mind. Through the act of prostration, we practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness by contemplating the body, feelings, mind, and phenomena. This practice serves to help us become more aware of our body and mind. We also benefit from "markless prostration", in which we remain clearly aware of the present moment, as well as about the state of our physical and mental being. In doing so, we gradually realize their true nature as being impermanent, without self, and empty. With such a realization, our mind is calm and settled, no longer subject to the influence of either internal or external conditions.

Extended Reading:

Prostration: Paying Homage to the Buddha

Common Buddhist Etiquette

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 1. Buddhism does not advocate for idolatry, so why would people still make Buddha statues and even prostrate to them?

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 2. If we do not have a Buddhist altar or a Buddha statue at home, then towards which direction should we prostrate?

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 3. When is the appropriate time to make prostrations to the Buddha? How many prostrations should one perform?

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 4. Are the objects to which Buddhists prostrate only limited to Buddha statues?

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 5. Can prostrating to the Buddha eliminate karmic obstacles?

Prostrating to the Buddha to Train the Body and Cultivate the Mind

Prostrating to the Buddha and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Practice Method of Prostrating to the Buddha

Resource: Issue 347 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 347 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: 韋徵儀(Vicky Wei)     
Editing: Chia-chen Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown